Latest Georgia jobs reports: trouble or transition?

Manufacturing is one key part of the Georgia recovery. Here, the factory floor of the Blue Bird Corp. school bus manufacturing plant in Fort Valley. The company has been working to modernize its production and it says it has created clean energy jobs. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Manufacturing is one key part of the Georgia recovery. Here, the factory floor of the Blue Bird Corp. school bus manufacturing plant in Fort Valley. The company has been working to modernize its production and it says it has created clean energy jobs. (Hyosub Shin / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

April employment surveys send conflicting signals

The economic snapshot released Thursday was pretty confusing: Georgia’s unemployment rate dipped, which is good, but a separate survey showed the state losing jobs, which is bad.

The contradictory signposts came from different government surveys, the kind of data discord that often accompanies a transition, when the economy is either braking into a recession or gearing up for strong growth.

There is reason for hope. After devastating layoffs early in the pandemic and months of hesitant growth, millions of arms have been vaccinated, consumer travel is climbing, spending is up and many businesses are hiring — or trying to hire — for a post-pandemic surge.

Only some of that promise is reflected in April’s numbers.

The monthly government survey of employers showed the number of jobs in Georgia dropping by 9,300 — far worse than the pre-pandemic average for April.

Yet a survey of workers showed the number of Georgians with jobs grew by more than 22,000 during the month. That survey was used to calculate the jobless rate, which dipped from 4.5% in March to 4.3% in April.

The conflicting numbers came after the U.S. government reported earlier this month that far fewer jobs were created nationally in April than economists had expected, raising the country’s jobless rate to 6.1% from 6.0%.

After the weak U.S. jobs report, more than 20 Republican governors — including Gov. Brian Kemp — moved to end federal unemployment payments early. Businesses argued they couldn’t hire enough workers because many jobless Americans could earn as much or more from federal and state benefits.

In a hopeful sign the economy is growing again, the government reported Thursday that national jobless claims totaled 444,000 last week, the fewest since mid-March 2020. Georgia said it processed 25,441 jobless claims, down 7,392 from the previous week, with most claims from workers in accommodation and food services. By historic standards, though, the national and state numbers remain extremely high.

Georgia’s jobless rate has been lower than the national rate since early 2019, after it was higher the previous 15 years. Through good times and bad, however, the share of Georgia’s population in the workforce — people either working or seeking work — has been smaller than nationally.

About 288,000 Georgians are receiving unemployment benefits, 218,000 of them through federal pandemic payments that Georgia is cutting off June 26. The cut-off would also remove the $300-a-week federal subsidy paid to about 70,000 others still receiving state benefits, which are capped at $365.

They can get jobs, said Labor Commissioner Mark Butler: The state’s job site lists 239,000 positions, 72% of them paying more than $30,000 a year.

Since more than 80% of those receiving benefits had previously earned less than $20,000 a year, cutting off benefits removes their incentive to take government payments rather than work, Butler said. “Our job is not to provide wage replacement for individuals, but to offer career opportunities...Temporary financial support has served its short-term purpose.”

Some have criticized ending federal unemployment benefits early, partly because the money is an economic stimulus.

Georgia has been receiving more than $1,500 per capita from the federal government in unemployment benefits since the CARES Act passed in March 2020, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. And in the past two months, those federal subsidies have increased by about $925 million a month, or about $87 per capita.

Critics argue that the cuts will be painful for those struggling to pay rent or buy groceries, especially those who cannot work because they are taking care of children or elderly family members.

“They are barely making it now,” said Ray Khalfani, research associate at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Moreover, a Census Bureau survey shows that two of every five jobless Georgians who have applied for benefits this year are not even receiving them, often because of backlogs in the labor department, he said.

Sharon Corpening, a writer, web and video producer in Roswell, said she’s been relying on the federal benefits to support herself and her elderly mother, who lives with her.

“It feels like they are pulling the rug out before I get my footing,” she said. “I will be in some trouble.”

Many of the most accessible jobs are low-wage hospitality work that she says she physically cannot do. But landing a white-collar job requires time for corporate vetting, Corpening said. “You are asking people to take a considerable pay cut and throw away their careers when all we need is a few more months.”

Most of Georgia’s current jobless claims are re-applications from people who have been jobless for a year or more, Butler said.

The horizon does hold hope for expansion to come, with hiring in various sectors.

Demand for staffing — often an early signal of where the economy is headed — has been strong, said Kim Wallace, executive vice president at Hire Dynamics, a Duluth-based staffing company that places workers in positions with logistics and manufacturing companies.

“We are seeing double-digit growth in our business, not just compared to last year, but compared to 2019,” she said.

Among other examples of companies hiring:

-- Bonduelle, a food manufacturer, says it is adding 250 jobs at its plant in Jackson.

-- Buff City Soap is adding 10 “soap makers and soap consultants” at its new Buckhead location.

-- IC Biomedical, which makes cryogenic freezers, is building a plant near Cartersville that will hire more than 80 people.

-- Georgia officials announced Thursday a South Korean company plans to open a manufacturing plant in Braselton that will create 285 jobs. Duckyang supplies battery and energy storage systems to SK Battery America, which is opening a huge plant nearby.

Unemployment rate, April 2021

Georgia: 4.3%

United States: 6.1%

Unemployment rate, April 2020

Georgia: 12.5%

United States: 14.8%

Unemployment rate, April, 2019

Georgia: 3.6%

United States: 3.7%

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Georgia job growth, April

Average, 10 years pre-pandemic: 8,800

April, 2021: -9,300

Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Federal payments to Georgia for pandemic-related unemployment

Per capita: $1,532

Rank among states: 17th

Source: Peter G. Peterson Foundation

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